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Examining the Complexities of the Korean War


The Korean War: No Victors, No Vanquished

By Stanley Sandler

The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky; 1999

ISBN #0-8131-0967-1


Review by Jerry Winzig


The Korean War: No Victors, No Vanquished is a complex and intriguing book about a complicated war.  While its author, Stanley Sandler, is a historian for the US Army Special Operations Command, this is no polemic favoring the US military.  Instead, his descriptions of the war's military campaigns are remarkably balanced and his accounts focus on the varied nuances of the war.


Early in the book, Sandler says "The Peoples' Republic of China could be said to have emerged as the one undisputed gainer from this war."  He points out that, after the 1949 victory of the Communists in the Chinese civil war, Mao Tse-tung had proclaimed that "China has stood up!"  Sandler then argues that China truly "stood up" when its delegates met as equals with those of the United States at the first Korean armistice talks in 1951.


But Sandler's conclusion is nowhere near that simple.  He argues that the Korean War began the decades-long era of high militarization that characterized most of the Cold War.  He points out that, while North Korea appeared to be rather successful in the years immediately after the Korean War, the north's industrial and hydro-electric advantages were wasted by Kim Il Sung's cultic dictatorship.  At the same time, even though "the war stunted Korean political life" and strengthened the regime of Syngman Rhee (Yi Sung-Man) in the south, South Korea was able to overcome these initial deficits.


Sandler's book reflects the fact that he is a military historian.  He provides considerable detail about specific military units on all sides of the conflict.  Sometimes the detail almost overwhelms the reader with acronyms and unit numbers, as when he describes a disastrous clash between the CPV (Chinese People's Volunteers) and UNC (United Nations Command) forces at the town of Unsan: "Here the 8th Calvary Regiment of the 1st [US] Calvary Division was badly mauled and the ROK [Republic of Korea] 15th Regiment virtually destroyed.  The withdrawal of the US 1st and 2nd Battalions, 8th Calvary Regiment, was accompanied with some confusion and even panic..."


But the reader who hangs in there discovers a remarkable amount of respect for all the men who fought in Korea, whether they were from the People's Liberation Army (PLA), the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), the Korean People's Army (KPA, also known as the "Inmin Gun"), Australia, England, Ethiopia, France, or the Soviet Union.


The Soviet Union?  One of the things that makes this book interesting is the number of remarkable facts it reveals about the Korean War.  Sandler reveals that 72,000 Soviet air personnel were stationed in Manchuria and flew most of the air combat missions against the UN command, a fact known and kept secret by the United States for many years.  He tells us that, at the outbreak of the war on 25 June 1950, 50 percent of the South Korean army was on leave.  He points out that it was not just the United States that imposed limits on itself by refusing to follow MiG fighters into China.  The Soviet Union limited the number of fighters in the air to 40, and declined to attack U.N forces over South Korea.


Sandler's revelations are not limited to those that favor the United States or South Korea.  Prior to the Korean War, he tells us, "It is fairly obvious that something like civil wear raged intermittently in South Korea since 1946, erupting into bloody insurrection in 1948-9.  Authoritative estimates put the death toll at about 100,000."  He believes that General MacArthur ignored obvious signs that, as UN forces marched toward the Yalu River, there were already 36 Chinese divisions inside North Korea, and many were already engaged in combat with MacArthur's forces.


Nor does Sandler paper over the horrific effects of the Korean War.  He describes how parts of the country were turned into a "moonscape" by massive bombing, and then points out: "The cost of the UN aircraft lost was higher than that of all the destroyed Communist vehicles, rolling stock and supplies!"  He describes the terrible results of the use of napalm and phosphorus, and tells of troops buried alive by bulldozer blades mounted on tanks or crushed under tank treads.


The book describes blunders, bad decisions, crass behavior, idiocy, and tragic human waste on the part of many of the participants in the Korean War.  But he also quotes General Matthew B. Ridgeway, who took MacArthur's place, at length on what the UN was fighting for in Korea:


Real estate is here incidental....The real issues are whether the power of Western civilization....shall defy and defeat Communism; whether the rule of men who shoot their prisoners, enslave their citizens, and deride the dignity of man, shall displace the rule of those to whom the individual and his individual rights are sacred....The sacrifices we have made, and those we shall yet support, are not offered vicariously for others, but in our own direct defense.  In the final analysis, the issue now joined right here in Korea is whether communism or individual freedom shall prevail.


Sandler concedes many of the mistakes of the war--the human frailties, the racism, the condescension of Americans towards Korea.  He describes events that only recently have been covered by the mainline media, such as bridges filled with civilian refugees being blown up by desperate retreating UN forces.  But he also believes, with considerable supporting detail, that "the Korean War, for all of its destruction, waste and human cost, was not fought in vain.  Whatever the failings of the Rhee regime and its immediate successors, South Korea was spared the worst of the Stalinist regimes and eventually emerged with something far better."  And he concludes that the fall of the Soviet Union and its "Potemkin Village empire" can be traced to President Truman's decision,with the support of the United Nations, to send troops to the defense of the Republic of Korea.



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